August 21, 2018 | Updated: January 11, 2021
Wheelchairs have come a long way in the last 50 years. Electric wheelchairs became popular for helping veterans of the Second World War, and represented a great stride forward in technology and accessibility at the time. But modern robotics stand to transform the wheelchair as we know it, greatly improving the lives of people with disabilities and those who rely on one for day-to-day tasks.
For example, take this wheelchair controlled by eye-gaze and how it would impact someone suffering from Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS). Suddenly, not being able to use a joystick is no longer a limiting factor.
Plus, in that study, by employing ultrasound and IR sensors, “no collisions between the wheelchair and the ambient environment were reported through the entire test,” and that research was published two years ago.
One of today’s most advanced wheelchairs is being pioneered by Ming Liu, IEEE Senior Member and Assistant Professor at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.
Liu’s wheelchair is very much a robot, and can learn how to navigate complex environments: “When the robot moves around, it creates a 3-D representation of the environment, and then the robot will analyze this map so that it knows where the difficult parts are and how to transform itself so it can automatically move from point A to point B,” says Liu.
How a Robotic Wheelchair Helps People with Disabilities
The wheelchair does, quite literally, transform itself. As you can see in the video, elements of the chair can adjust automatically to allow it to go up and down stairs without requiring any user input. “The adaptation to use this wheelchair will be quite handy and very easy,” he says.
Vehicular robots are making life better for disabled children, too. Assistive technologies, like this vehicle described in a recent IEEE Xplore paper, have the potential to bring together “able bodied and disabled children to participate and cooperate in something that involves sharing and taking turns.”
“I think healthcare robots will be widely used in the next 5-10 years,” says Liu. “There are still some challenges we need to overcome; for example, society needs to accept healthcare robots, and be educated that humans can coexist with robotic systems and that they’re safe to use.”
“It is no surprise that in the time of COVID-19 we are thinking through artificial devices that can have physical interaction with people,” adds IEEE Senior Member and IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society member Jim Patton. “Robots are tireless, can measure very accurately, and can of course do very interesting things that capture the imagination and cannot otherwise be done using human contact and interaction. We are using artificial devices as physical tools more and more each day in not just rehabilitation but in transportation, mobility and telehealth.”
Interested in learning more about robots and healthcare? Check out EMBS.org for workshops, events and lectures on the subject.